Mind games: Pubescent talent does not guarantee later success

2014-08-18 12:00

The notion that you “have to catch ’em young” in sport is being turned on its head when you look at the Springbok squad.

The SA Rugby Union (Saru) has committed to a programme of scouting for future stars from as young as 13 and the progress of those identified is plotted as they make their way through the age-group tournaments until eventually they realise the Springbok dream.

It is a good approach, which I’m sure can be corroborated by any number of earnest sports physicians, yet the facts show nascent talent is no guarantee of later success.

Take the Junior Springboks side who won the IRB Junior World Cup in 2012.

At the time, most of them would have been 20 and one would have expected they would now be starting to make an impact in senior rugby.

Some have, notably Handré Pollard and Jan Serfontein, but the majority of these young “world beaters” seem to have lost their way as they have moved into the senior ranks and come up against the harsh reality that the “anointed few” status that enveloped them as juniors has no place in a hard-bitten professional world.

Pollard played in that tournament as a schoolboy and showed the cool head that would make him a Springbok (he played in his second test against Argentina yesterday) and Serfontein emerged as the player of the tournament.

The stocky centre was hailed as “the next Danie Gerber”. But his decision to sign for the Bulls, thereby submitting to their restrictive pattern, seems to have suffocated his natural attributes. He’s now been turned him into a crash-baller rather than the creator of tries his promise had suggested.

Serfontein amazingly already has 12 caps but yesterday he had to sit out at the start to make way for returning captain Jean de Villiers.

That, too, is a reality young up-and-comers must deal with – in many instances, coaches prefer experience to promise and often you have to bend the knee to long-serving seniors or players with rank.

Serfontein, Pollard and the unfortunately injured Pieter-Steph du Toit are the only players among the 2012 world champions to have become Springboks.For the rest, the conversion rate is not impressive.

Raymond Ruhle, Kobus van Wyk, Paul Jordaan, Paul Willemse, Steven Kitshoff and, to a lesser extent, William Small-Smith, Wian Liebenberg and Oliver Kebble have gained a foothold in senior rugby – quite a small number out of a group of 31.

Many teenagers are discouraged by not being spotted, but the flip side of the coin shows not only is the policy of committing to players when they are very young flawed but the three Ds – desire, determination and dedication – should never be discounted.

When the Baby Boks were winning their world title in 2012, Lodewyk de Jager was turning out for North-West University’s Under- 20 side.

But he had size and heart and “lood” in his veins, and being given a chance by the Cheetahs transformed into the kind of Springbok debut that suggests he will be around for many more years.

So too Stephan Lewies. The big Sharks man came from the famed northern “lock factory” but was not picked up by the Blue Bulls and ended up at the Sharks academy from whence he made his way into KwaZulu-Natal sides until earning his first Springbok cap against Scotland in Port Elizabeth in June.

Though it is right to have youth programmes, Saru needs to expand the programme to make room for late developers, in particular promising young black players who come from disadvantaged backgrounds, and nurture players for longer rather than cutting them loose after age 20 – perhaps by reintroducing an Under-23 competition.

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